The Pinball Project I am a Pinballer.
“CLUNK!” I crave that sound and have for almost half a century. In 1969, I walked into the Pinball Alley in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the first time. A random percussion symphony of bells, pops, clicks and clunks left no room for human voices. I found an open machine and put in a dime. A credit showed up on a dial and the first challenge was to figure out how to put it to use. Not wanting to push the wrong button I looked around at the other players and spotted someone starting a game. This machine required pushing the ball up onto the shooter rod before you could launch it into play, which forced another glance around to figure out how.
The first ball bounced around the top a few times and then went SDTM (straight down the middle). I nudged the second a bit and it came down onto the flipper. My first flip. It was a 5 ball game, (a rarity today even on games that cost a dollar to play) and I ended up scoring enough points to hear the crack of a free game. I was hooked. Having only a buck and change, I left about 2 hours later broke and exhilarated. A feeling akin to the first touch on a first date or having a computer program work on the first run back when lines of code had to be on punch cards. Full of anticipation.
In a few weeks, I could put a quarter into a machine and play all afternoon leaving games on the machine when I left. That semester was the first time I failed a course and ended up with a “D” average after a year and a half of nearly all “A”s. I was the scholarship chairman at the fraternity and on probation. Sounds a bit like Animal House. The seduction of pinball was impossible to resist, the machines were beautiful with a dose of chaos wrapped in a set of rules. Much like dating, except that the rules were simple enough to understand and printed on a little card in the corner. They were surprisingly complex rules considering they were programmed using only relays and about a quarter mile of wire.
I managed to control the addiction to the point that I did graduate, but once that monkey rides your back, you don’t pass a machine without a tingle and a warping of local gravitational force dragging you to the machine. I rarely can summon up the escape velocity to move past it, without copping a feel and never without a closer look. It’s as unavoidable as glancing down at deep cleavage while talking to a woman.
How many machines do I own? More than dozens, less than hundreds. This is hard to pin down since to own a pinball machine has different meanings. Hauling one home and keeping it repaired is one way, the other is to know a machine to the point that you can play as long as you want and never have to pay for a second game. I’ve hauled 6 machines home and still have four of them, with my seventh on order. Four were Electro-mechanical or EM machines, the fifth Dot Matrix Display (DMD) and the sixth is in a new category. The EM machines work on relays and a vast complex of wires to control the play. DMDs have a dedicated computer with firmware reading the switches and controlling the action. They have a six inch high dot matrix display below the backglass which alternately shows the scores and crude animations. Some are used for simple video games during the play. The newest type uses a full blown computer with operating system that can be updated in software from a thumbdrive and a backglass that is a large computer monitor.
There are two other types, Solid State (SS) and Virtual. Solid state machines were the first with computer control, and scoring was shown on liquid crystal displays similar to the first digital watches. Virtual machines are not really pinball machines but simply a video game on a big screen mounted where the playfield should be in a not quite full size pinball cabinet. They are a bit like looking at a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue compared to wonton sex with a beautiful woman, a much less satisfying experience.
For many years I have coveted a SS machine known as Xenon. It was second machine to be given a voice. A gorgeous woman’s face filling the backglass beckons you with a sexy giggle and “Welcome to Xenon.” As you play, this low, sultry voice instructs you where to put it, the ball that is. “Try a Tube Shot…” (yes, you shoot up into a clear tube for big points) leads to a heartbeat and moaning that quickens as long as you keep the ball in play. The moaning eventually gives way to gasping and it has been my second greatest pinball regret that I’ve never brought her to climax. Playboy has licensed three different machines, but none come even close to the Xenon experience. My greatest regret is that I didn’t buy the Xenon machine that Jeff offered me.
As for the first machine with a voice, it was a waste of good pinball parts. The character is a red monster, Gorgar. Imagine the Hulk with a 5 word vocabulary. “Gorgar,” and “Gorgar hurt” make up 90% of his conversation with you. After hearing that a thousand times you really start wishing he would just go off and die somewhere.
After buying a “Lord of the Rings” pinball machine, I started a small business producing custom pinball shooter rods. The inspiration was seeing a gold plated replica of the One Ring. I bought the largest I could find, size 14, and mounted it on the end of a regular shooter rod. I liked it, but the diameter was a bit too small. I found a size 15 ½, which was much better. After contacting several companies I found that one could make a size 16 and after several small orders I took a chance and ordered 50. The big breakthrough was convincing Marco Specialties to carry them. Between eBay and Marco I have sold over two hundred ring shooters in the past 5 years. I’ve also, expanded the shooter line to over 20 different types and total sales are over 300. I’m now getting close to breaking even and owning 5 machines outright.
The machine that brings back the most memories is Spirit of 76. Four of us would regularly go to lunch at a driving range that had the machine. There was a good size bar and a dozen tables in the main room, with 3 or 4 pinball machines on a small sun porch overlooking the range. As ranges go, it was very generous. You stood at the top of a hill so that drives would carry another 30-40 yards. If you simply topped the ball ten feet, it would roll down another 100. The view from the sunroom took in both the range and miles beyond. The best sport happened while Harold was out gathering up the golf balls out on the range. Everyone at a tee would gun for him in his cage on the golf cart. They served a pretty good lunch and you had better clean your plate or you’ll get an earful from the lunch lady who cooked it.
Getting back to pinball, the four of us would buy one game and it was the obligation of the first player to win at least two games. That task usually fell to Jeff and me taking turns playing the 5 balls. Once we had 4 games on we all played our own game and the shooting order normally went, lowest score on the previous game went first, on up to the highest score last. In the rare event that no one scored a free game, we would change the order randomly. That machine had such a hold that three of us now own that machine, I personally have two.
We played and drank beer, sometimes not returning to work for hours. Once we were there until 8 o’clock that night. One of us four was my boss, so it wasn’t a big deal for me showing up late from lunch. He was a mediocre player at best and wouldn’t have let me leave even if I wanted to. I was needed to win the games so he could keep playing for free. Jeff however, was not so lucky. His boss wanted punctuality and sobriety, difficult commodities to find at Harold’s on the Hill.
In less than a year Jeff had moved on to another company, but we still met at Harold’s for lunch, beer, and pinball, rarely in that order. In fact, the first person through the door ran to the Spirit of 76 with quarter in hand. A few times we found someone else already playing and were force to play the machine next to it, to be ready to jump on Spirit of 76 the second it was open. For a long time that other machine was Gorgar. This could be part of my revulsion towards it, but only a minuscule bit. Consider listening to it say “GORGAR!” every 45 seconds even if no one’s playing. So, the second order of business after grabbing Spirit was turning Gorgar OFF! Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Harold caught onto this. Not hearing “GORGAR!” every 45 seconds can be just as upsetting once you brain loads its “GORGAR!” cancelling program. Similar to the lighthouse keeper who wakes up in a cold sweat at 3am because 20 seconds went by and fog horn DIDN’T sound. Just as soon as there was a lull at the bar Harold would come back, cuss us out and turn it on again.
Jeff had a habit of heading off to the men’s room just before his turn came up making everyone wait. To encourage him to hurry when he reappeared from taking a leak I would yell out, “Here comes your ball” and shoot it into play. He’d run, massive cursing would follow, but he rarely lost the ball from that. A few times I actually gave him a good shot. Then there was the day that shortly after he headed for the john, I lost the ball, so I headed after him. I let a good 30 seconds pass so he could get settled into a compromised position and open the door with the flat of palm firmly in the center. This was a hollow core door that swung inward and the result was a seriously loud bang. This affected Jeff’s aim when he jumped about two feet in the air resulting in some stray urine on the wall and floor. The obligatory cursing ensued with promises of payback, most of which I missed because I was laughing so hard. This, of course, became standard procedure for the next few months, both of us anticipating it and slowing the whole “taking a leak” process considerably. Neither of us wanted to start our business for a good minute or until the bang. Once I stood at the inside of the door with the flat of my hand about 6 inches away from the door. The first bang was followed by a second similar bang and then a clunk when Jeff hit his head on the rebounding door.
The climax came several weeks later. We were in there after work, and Jeff heads to the men’s room. 30 seconds later I give an extra good bang, knowing that he’s waiting for it, but perhaps not for an earsplitter. I’m halfway through the door when I hear, “WHO THE HELL IS BREAKING MY DOOR?” I hustled back to the machine and you never saw anyone with a more painted-on look of concentration than mine, covering up complete distraction. Harold had been taking a dump and Jeff claims he jumped high enough that his head was visible above the partition, but I’m a bit skeptical on that point. I know the stall door could be heard outside when he opened it. The “door bang” fell out of favor for a while, and is now used only every other time someone takes a piss while we’re playing.
I found a Spirit of 76 in nearly perfect working condition in Huntsville for $100. Jeff had given me a pinball machine before I moved south, and this was the perfect machine to return the favor. This year it was included in one of the pinball tournaments and yours truly had top score at the end of the competition. I missed qualifying for the playoffs by one position, mostly due to that one top score. Ironically, for the first time, they had added a prize for being the “top loser” - $100! Spirit is still paying off.
There is one other eerie coincidence with the Spirit of 76. Last year, I managed to qualify for the playoffs of the first classic tournament. Being near the bottom of the list I was paired with one of the top qualifiers, an excellent player who tours the pinball circuit. In a best of three, he won the first, I won the second and then I squeaked out a win playing a machine that he had chosen. In the playoffs the higher seed gets to choose playing position, first or last, or which machine to play on. Most players will pick the machine and have to play first on it. By winning the first round I was in the money, at least $100. The next player was actually better than the first having finished in first place and drawn a bye. This went the same as the first round, lose, win, win. Up to $150. In the semi-finals I played Andy Rosa, one of the top 3 players in the US. I won the first and second, I have at least $300 now.
For the finals, my opponent chose to go last, so I picked the machine. Every time I had a choice, I picked the same machine, “Volley,” a 5-ball game with a full game tilt, meaning a tilt, even on the first ball, ended the game. Experienced players won’t choose them because going first is a huge handicap. They are single player games and the person going second knows what he has to beat before he puts his first ball in play. If the first player tilts early on, the second player can play ultra conservatively and assure a win. If the first player posts an awesome score the second player knows that he must play more aggressively. It was my best score in the qualifying rounds, so I went with my gut rather than my head. I won the first game by a good margin and now it’s my turn to choose. Of course, I chose to play Volley, since now I had won four straight games playing that machine. I tilted on the third ball, an easy win for my opponent. He stewed a bit, but finally chose to go second for a third time, maybe thinking I’ll pick another game having just lost on this one. I don’t. We play Volley for the third time and I post the best score of the night for the machine. When his fifth ball drains, he would have lost even if I had tilted on third ball again; I had that many points. The purse was $600 with a trophy.
The classic tournaments are named honoring the early pinball designers. This one had been the Wayne Nevins Tournament. Wayne designed over a hundred machines for Gottlieb in the late 60s all through the 70s and into the 80s. Of all these machines, he owns only one, “Spirit of 76,” having won it on a bet with Mr. Gottlieb himself. When Spirit went into production, the top management folks were celebrating at restaurant, making guesses as to how many they would eventually sell, 2000, 4000, maybe even 5000. Wayne had been quiet through this and Mr. Gottlieb finally had to ask him. Wayne told him 10,000. Mr Gottlieb laughed at such a ridiculously high number and promised to make him a gift of the 10,000th machine, if they do indeed sell that many. That machine was delivered to Wayne a year and a half later.
All I can say in my long history with this machine is, “The Spirit is strong in this one.”
So as you can see, I am a pinballer.